Fearing Death and Finding Life: Va-et’chanan – Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11
More frightening than death itself,
Is the thought
That we’ll find ourselves
In Va-et’chanan, Moses stands before God, pleading for his life. With misty eyes and tears of supplication dotted with desert sand, Moses asks God for just one more thing: to enter the Promised Land with the Israelites, and to allow his body and heart to touch the earth on the other side of the Jordan. And only then would he depart like any other flesh and turn into ashes and dust: “I pleaded with the Eternal at that time, saying…Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan” (Deuteronomy 3:23-25).
But God ignores his pleas and commands Moses to be silent: “Never speak to Me of this matter again!” (Deuteronomy 3:26). He tells Moses to go up and, with those same misty eyes, look to the north, east, west, and south. He makes Moses painfully witness his terrible punishment of reaching the edge of the promise without actually fulfilling it: “Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan.” (Deuteronomy 3:27).
When the Sages preface their commentaries with, “If it were not written, it could not be said,” they are referring to things which appear in the Torah that are so severe that it’s hard to accept or believe they were written. This holds true for the above story where Moses pleads for his life, gets down on his knees, and begs to reach the Promised Land, but God does not relent.
After Moses’s hopeful begging, God silences him, refuses his request outright, and forces him to reexperience his unbearable punishment – namely, to die and not reach the Promised Land – even in his final days and last requests for mercy. Through refusing his request, God subjects Moses to emotional torture and makes him acknowledge his death sentence. This is a cruelty which is difficult to understand or accept –cruelty that challenges our faith in God’s virtues, describing a bitter exchange between God and Moses, who is trying to stave off his death:
God: “You demand life but took it yourself. Did I tell you to kill the Egyptian?”
Moses: “You slew all the firstborn of Egypt who did not sin, yet I am to die because of a single Egyptian?!”
God: “Are you likening yourself to Me? I slay, but also restore to life.”
God and Moses are waging a ‘moral battle.’ And Moses, who is fighting for his life, is dumbstruck. Actually, he takes another step towards his death.
I was asked many years ago, “If you could change the ending of one book, which would it be?” And I always gave the same answer: the ending of the Book of Deuteronomy, the Torah, and Moses’s death. I would have wanted absolution and for God to allow Moses to enter the land so his aching feet could feel the clods of soil, the refreshing cool waters of the Jordan, the sweetness of the date honey, and the bitterness of the olive. To allow him to fill his lungs with the air of the land, feel the beads of sweat on his back in Israel’s blazing heat, count the rare raindrops that fall every winter, and display compassion for those who followed him and lost their loved ones in the desert. Their clothes are tattered, and their hearts are sealed and locked in front of the gates to the land now open to them. And after reaching it, they would prostrate themselves on the land of the promise, and on their lips just two words – “thank you.” Maybe, as I continue fantasizing, Moses really would experience a different ending and wouldn’t die in the Torah.
Then again, perhaps Moses lives within the Torah to this day. His death wasn’t the conclusion of the story, but the birth of the greatest, most compelling story ever. The birth of the Torah, the Torah of Moses, our teacher. It became the amazing, undying creative work that contains our people’s story, our people’s book, and the Torah that lives with us, forever intertwined with eternity. Moses’s receiving of the Torah at Sinai was transmitted to us and has given us life; its transmission has never ceased.
Moses got to live within us. His life gave us life. Our lives perpetuate his memory: “Behold, I have taught you statutes and rules…for you to abide by in the land which you are soon to possess… And you shall keep and observe them…that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they live on the earth” (Deuteronomy 4:5,10).
Less frightening than death itself,
Is knowing –
That we’ll continue to live
After it as well
In the hearts of others